Sport, Staff Picks

Staff Pick: Baseball Playbook

When you have a child, you get a lot of stuff. There’s the baby stuff – the various transportation devices and accoutrements, the clothing, the books, and the toys (my favorite of these is a stuffed giraffe that plays a soothing African drum rhythm, peppered with the growls of, I guess, a lion. It’s comforting, despite the lion’s growl). Then there’s the stuff for you, the parent – my coworker got me a badly-needed bottle of bourbon; he knows me well. My father, on the other hand, brought me a book. Not a parenting book, mind you. My father was perfectly confident in my skills canada goose deutschland as a father; it was my ability to run a baseball team that he doubted. “You might have to coach Little League in a few years,” he told me, handing me a strange, plain windows 10 key Online book. My son was a week old. It would be at least two years before he would learn to throw a cut fastball (and probably another year or two before he had any real command of the pitch), but my father likes to plan ahead. He’d gotten 642-998 this book 70-417 from a colleague of his, one who used to scout for the Atlanta Braves and coached baseball at the college level, so the book came with an impressive recommendation. Roughly the size of a chemistry textbook, Baseball Playbook (no article needed) is now one of the stranger books I own. It looks like a self-published book from the days when that meant cutting a deal with a printer and paying extra for a second 300-135 color of ink on the cover, an expense the publishers of Baseball Playbook declined to indulge. The only text on the jacket of the book is the title of the book and “by Ron Polk.” No publisher information, no ISBN, no blurbs. Ron Polk is a fan of simplicity. He was also the longtime head 300-360 coach of the Mississippi State Bulldogs baseball team, and the book is published by the Mississippi State University Press (I discovered this information on the internet; there’s nothing at all in the book that states this). Baseball Playbook is a complete guide to coaching a baseball team. It contains, among other things, a template for scheduling batting practice, a guide to developing offensive signs (you know, the ones the third base coach flashes to hitters and baserunners), a series of fundamental drills canada goose outlet designed to practice things like pick-off moves to first and second base, diving back to the base, and fielding bunts. There’s even a section dedicated to field maintenance. “For many years, calcinated clay has been the standard 312-50 material used for drying infields,” Polk writes. “However, recently a new product made from ground corn cobs called Diamond Dry has been marketed and promises to be a superior product.” It would not be an exaggeration to say buy Windows 10 Pro Key that you could build a baseball field with the instructions in this book. If Baseball Playbook has a flaw, it’s that it sometimes dispenses some archaic advice. For instance, an early section of the book outlines a sample agreement between coaches and players regarding conduct. While drinking is to be strictly forbidden, “We will allow any player to chew tobacco on or off the playing field as long as it does not show grotesquely.” Don’t you hope your kid is on my Little League team? By far the best part of the book, though, are the many different game play situations presented, complete with a diagram of what each player should do on the play. For instance, what is the second baseman supposed to do when a sure buy windows 10 key double to left-center field is hit with a runner at first base? The answer: “Once he reads the sure extra base hit to left center 210-065 field, he will be the back man for the shortstop on the tandom [sic] relay. In the tandom 210-260 relay, he will be responsible to communicate with the shortstop as to where the ball is to be thrown, if at all.” Now you know. This section reminds me of Doyle Bronson’s Super System, a two-volume book that provides a hand-by-hand guide to nearly every conceivable poker scenario. In Baseball Playbook, there’s a chart that suggests defensive alignments based on the count – people tend to pull the ball more on hitter's counts (more balls than strikes). It’s this completist streak, this idea that one might prepare for every play in a game, that draws me to the book. It reminds me of the obsession I’d developed in high school with chess, spending every spare moment thinking of the game, of openings. Later, I’d find a similar obsession with poker. Flipping through Baseball Playbook, it isn’t hard to propel myself into the future, to imagine myself as a Little League coach, running through the various possibilities of MA0-101 play in my head each night as I try, fruitlessly, to fall asleep. I’ll be the squinty, sun-leathered skipper of, I don’t know, the Nate’s Discount Tire Depot Padres.  We’ll always hit the cutoff man and never, ever, let our chewing tobacco show.
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Through A Glass, Clearly: Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars

Like millions of other Americans, I spent the weeks after September 11, 2001, struggling to understand how the tragic events of that day could have happened. CNN’s Aaron Brown and Paula Zahn came to feel like permanent guests in our living room. I watched Frontline documentaries. I scoured obscure websites on Islamic fundamentalism. I read – or, rather, tried to read – Ahmed Rashid’s Taliban, one of the few English-language books then in print on recent Afghan history. I wasn't a complete moron. I had heard of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, and I was old enough to remember the tales of the plucky Afghan mujahideen bringing the Soviet military to its knees in the waning years of the Cold War. But none of what I already knew, even when combined with the new facts I learned that fall, added up to 19 guys hijacking four planes and flying them into buildings full of thousands of innocent men, women, and children. It is only recently, through Steve Coll’s masterly Ghost Wars, first published in 2004, that I have begun to feel like I understand, viscerally as well as intellectually, what started the terrible train of events that ended that bright fall morning now almost ten years ago. There are armloads of first-class histories of the period, ranging from Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower to the U.S. government’s own 9/11 Commission Report [pdf], and I heartily recommend all of them, but if you only have time for one book on the subject, make it Ghost Wars. Histories of Islamic extremism written for an American audience have to confront this country’s fundamental ignorance of the Muslim world. In Taliban, Rashid, a Pakistani journalist, deals with this problem by ignoring it and diving headlong into the hellish cauldron of military alliances that beset the Afghan capital of Kabul after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 as if the rival Afghan leaders Ahmad Shah Massoud, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and Mohammad Najibullah were household names. For this reason, Taliban may be one of the least-finished bestsellers in recent memory. In contrast, in The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini, an Afghan refugee who has lived in the U.S. since 1980, presents the rise of the Taliban in a way guaranteed to make Americans feel at home. Hosseini, who lived only a few years in Afghanistan as a child, portrays the sectarian conflicts between the Pashtun and Hazara factions in the country of his birth as analogous to racial strife between white and black people in the American South, and in case that isn’t familiar enough, he gives his principal baddie, a neighborhood bully who becomes a Taliban leader, a Hitler fixation. The Kite Runner has sold millions of copies and been made into a Hollywood film, but really it says more about the lenses through which Americans see the Muslim world than it does about how the Muslim world actually works. Coll handles his readers’ ignorance of his subject by rolling up his sleeves and explaining, in a remarkably patient, non-partisan way, the whole ugly history of America’s involvement in Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion in 1979. Naturally, this takes some time – the book is almost 600 pages long – but it makes for riveting reading. One comes away from Ghost Wars with two seemingly paradoxical impressions: 1. unlike most American civilians, U.S. politicians and military leaders saw 9/11 coming years before it happened; and 2. barring a run of stupid luck, they had almost zero chance of stopping it, given the geopolitical realities of the pre-9/11 world. American diplomats and spies spent years pressing our Islamic allies, particularly Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, to force the Taliban to give up bin Laden. President Clinton and his security team spent hundreds of hours poring over satellite images and intelligence reports, trying to pin bin Laden down so they could kill him before he attacked us. They failed, and thousands of Americans died, followed by thousands more in the two wars that followed, but a fair reading of history suggests they were fighting with both hands tied behind their backs. The Original Sin of America’s involvement in Afghanistan – our clandestine arming of the mujahideen and our abandonment of the country after the Soviet retreat – makes a great deal more sense when viewed in context. It would have been politically foolish, and morally craven, to leave the Afghans defenseless against the Soviets in the 1980s, and once the Soviets left, there was exactly no political support for getting in the middle of a civil war in a distant country many Americans would have had trouble finding on a map. Likewise, while in hindsight it is hard to understand how American politicians allowed Pakistan to so openly drag its feet in challenging its Islamist allies in the Taliban, at the time the far greater worry among Western policymakers was that nuclear-armed Pakistan would pick a fight with its nuclear-armed neighbor, India, and blow Central Asia off the map. The past is a foreign country, as the British novelist L.P. Hartley famously said, but every now and then a work of history offers a guidebook to that country, not as it looks to us now, but as it was then. It is a cause for celebration, then, that in an age when telegenic polemicists like Glenn Beck and Rachel Maddow dominate the public debate, that real journalists like Steve Coll can still do their work.
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Staff Pick: The Real State of America Atlas

If you're thinking about taking a road trip in America this summer, you might want to consider leaving the GPS and the Rand McNally at home and, in their place, packing a bewitching new book called The Real State of America Atlas: Mapping the Myths and Truths of the United States by Cynthia Enloe and Joni Seager.  While it won't help you negotiate those ring-shaped parking lots around Atlanta or Washington, D.C., this idiosyncratic travel guide will reveal how life is lived today in any state you happen to pass through.  By the time you finish digesting the book's short essays, colorful graphics, charts and maps, you'll understand that the 50 states were not created equal.  Geography does matter. Enormously. As its subtitle suggests, the book's authors set out to strip away the popular myths that distort many Americans' view of their homeland and its place in the world. The authors accomplished this by analyzing a small mountain of data, including U.S. Census reports, the findings of prisoner rights research groups, the United Nations, the Pew Foundation and organizations monitoring college athletics, plus Bureau of Labor statistics and corporate annual reports. They then synthesized this data to produce a series of vivid snapshots about America's distribution of wealth, religious attitudes, employment, home ownership and homelessness, sickness and health, prisons, immigration, gun ownership, environmental degradation, corporate power, military spending, and even the worldwide popularity of the Barbie doll.  (She's huge in Italy and the United Kingdom.) The findings are by turns surprising, predictable, frightening, encouraging, amusing, and maddening.  For instance, we learn again and again that Texas is a state of extremes: it has executed the most people since 1976 (463); it has the highest percentage of hunters (Pennsylvania ranks second); it has sacrificed more of its citizens to the Iraq War than any other state except California (414 to 468, with Pennsylvania a distant third at 195); it has the highest percentage of citizens without health insurance (26 percent); and it has a gross domestic product equal to Russia's. While such facts are interesting in themselves and valuable for the global perspective they provide, they are not this book's greatest strength. Where The Real State of America Atlas truly shines is in its demolition of the notion – the enduring fantasy – that America is a land of equal opportunity, a place where boundless bounty awaits anyone who is willing to work hard and play by the rules.  With a relentless parade of statistics, the authors make a compelling case that the playing field is far from level and the American Dream is, increasingly, becoming the destiny of the privileged few as it slips beyond the reach of most members of the middle class.  Forget about the poor. Consider these numbers: there are 413 billionaires in America with a combined net worth of $1.4 trillion; the richest 1 percent of Americans own 35 percent of the total wealth; the poorest 40 percent own 0.2 percent of the wealth; 19 percent of American households have zero or negative wealth.  "Almost a fifth of American households have an annual income of less than $20,000," the authors write, "and 15 percent of Americans live at or below official poverty levels... The wealth gap in the U.S. is considerable and growing fast." Yet even as the federal budget went from a $236 billion surplus to a $1.5 trillion deficit in the past decade, many lawmakers, Republican and Democrat, insist that continued tax breaks for the rich are vital for the country. The super-rich aren't the only culprits in our looming national debt crisis. More than half of the foreign companies and 42 percent of U.S. companies doing business on American soil paid zero federal income tax for two or more years between 1998 and 2005. In 2009, General Electric, Bank of America, and CitiGroup paid exactly nothing. Only in America. Sometimes the book's statistics merely buttress the obvious – Americans are religious, they own a lot of guns, they love sports and cars, they're increasingly conservative and insanely overweight, they're not much interested in what's happening beyond their national borders, and, for a people descended largely from immigrants, they're oddly suspicious and resentful of recent immigrants. That said, the authors do sometimes counter well-known facts with counter-intuitive anecdotes, such as the revelation that for all the God-fearing that goes on in America, the number of atheists and agnostics has doubled, from 8 to 16 percent of the population, in the past 30 years. It's worth pausing here to consider the authors' bona fides. Cynthia Enloe is a political science professor at Clark University and the author of 11 books, including The Curious Feminist and Nimo's War, Emma's War: Making Feminist Sense of the Iraq War.  Joni Seager, a geographer and global policy expert, teaches at Bentley University in Boston and has written many books, including four editions of Atlas of Women in the World.  Given such credentials, it's perhaps not surprising that the authors occasionally leave themselves open to the criticism that they're promoting a leftist, feminist agenda. Worse, they sometimes slip into muzzy writing, such as: "Despite a long history of peace activism, many Americans have absorbed militaristic ideas: for instance, believing that soldiering is the highest form of patriotism, that the world is full of enemies, that protecting against terrorists trumps civil rights, that men are the natural protectors of women, that jet bombers overhead make sporting events exciting, and that Commander-in-Chief is the President's most important job." No doubt many Americans do believe these things. Just as surely, many don't believe them. But how many? And what do these competing beliefs tell us about the nation at large? Unfortunately, the authors don't say. But such missteps don't diminish this book's real and valuable achievements.  Enloe and Seager have produced a timely reminder that America is a place where the deck is stacked, where the rich keep getting richer, and where nothing is going to change until the members of the great, duped, sinking middle class wake up and realize they've been sold a bill of goods.
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The Devil in a Cadillac: Langston Hughes’ Tambourines to Glory

"It's a singing, shouting, wailing drama about the old conflict between blatant Evil and quiet Good, with the Devil driving a Cadillac. What kind of car have you got?" So Langston Hughes described his "urban-folk-Harlem-genre-melodrama" Tambourines to Glory, first conceived as a play/musical (1956) and then re-born two years later as a novel (1958).  It's the novel I recommend—though there are a lot of folk and gospel songs in this too ("Just A Closer Walk With Thee," "When The Saints Come Marching In," "A Rock On Which To Stand") and it is more vivid and arresting as read and sung by Myra Lucretia Taylor for Recorded Books. Tambourines is the story of the stolid, kind Essie Belle Johnson, and the lusty, flamboyant Laura Reed, two middle-aged women on home relief (welfare), neighbors in a low-rent apartment building in 1940s Harlem, who strike upon the idea of founding a church.  Actually, it's Laura's idea, Laura whose motives are not exactly pure: Love of "men, wine, and something fine"--and thoughts of tambourines heaped with coins—inspire her: "This religious jive is something we can  collect on," she tells Essie. Essie, on the other hand, feels called by God through Laura to do his work—and these conflicted motives, as you might imagine, drive the plot. With their two commanding voices—Essie's angelic and Laura's "deep, strong, wine-rusty, and wild"—and Laura's glib flare for preaching (she learned at the knee of her "jack-leg preacher" uncle), and a Bible and a tambourine, they begin holding prayer meetings on a corner of Lennox Ave. And the spirit is with them: they're good, so good that before long their church has moved into a grand old Harlem theater (with a little help from the sly, handsome "motherfouler" Buddy Lomax—Laura's "king-size Hershey Bar"). Some critics have called the novel's plot thin or slight, but that's missing the point (Paradise Lost isn't a lesser work because its conclusion is foregone); It's a failure to appreciate the spare, clean lines of Tambourines' morality tale plot and how this plot allows Hughes' tremendous gifts for poetic language and description, dialogue, and character through voice to come to the fore.  This is a living book—one that summons the age of the Great Migration and Sarah Vaughan and Joe Louis.  And while it's a morality fable, its characters aren't the flat allegorical kind: Laura especially (like Milton's Satan) is no mere caricature.  Nor is Hughes take on good and evil as easy to parse as the plot's simplicity suggests—like Milton, Hughes offers a too dull, sedentary vision of "good"—and a too seductive vision of "evil" in the lusty Laura.
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The Beauty I Long For: Maira Kalman and the Principles of Uncertainty

1. I find Maira Kalman’s sensibility and work difficult to describe to the uninitiated. She’s a visual artist and writer whose work combines photographs, text, and deceptively simple paintings—the kind of simple that takes considerable thought and skill—to form a record of what seems to me to be a ceaseless quest to understand this world, to appreciate its beauty, and to create some record of her life. She was born in Tel Aviv, and immigrated to the United States at the age of four. Her books are quirky, deeply moving, and beautiful documents of life on earth. She considers Spinoza, George Washington, fruit platters, her dog, the nature of war. If this sounds incoherent, it isn’t. “I am trying to figure out two very simple things,” she said once at a TED conference. You can find the video on YouTube. “How to live, and how to die. Period. That's all I'm trying to do, all day long.” I picked up The Principles of Uncertainty in a bookstore a year or so ago, and bought it because I couldn’t put it down. I'd first been introduced to her work some years earlier by an office mate. Let’s call her Jane. We worked for different small businesses in the same Midtown Manhattan office suite, Jane and I, in a tower just above Grand Central Station. We were slogging it out together in the shadow world of dreary part-time day jobs and interesting-but-not-terribly-lucrative artistic careers. She was an actor, I was writing my first novel, and our jobs were neither particularly good nor particularly awful. The office where I worked had white walls, a rippling carpet in a depressing shade of pink, and a horribly cheap desk whose fake-wood veneer was peeling off the particle board in strips. I worked on an ugly Dell laptop that only intermittently worked. When it stopped working I had to call Dell’s customer service line, by which I mean that I’d devote an hour to listening to hold music from overseas and then get disconnected in a burst of static. When I looked out the window the sheer glass wall of the Hyatt hotel only reflected my window back at me. The room’s saving grace was the existence of a floor lamp; when I was alone in the office I closed the door, turned off the fluorescent overheads and took refuge in low lighting and soft music. In those days The Principles of Uncertainty existed only as a ravishingly beautiful weekly feature on the New York Times website. I thought, looking over Jane's shoulder as she showed it to me: this is the beauty I long for. There were beautiful things in my life outside work, but my life in the office was a wasteland. This is sometimes the hardest thing to reconcile in the fraught territory of art and day jobs: the complete divide between the part of your life that pays your rent and the part of your life that you consider your career, the part that brings you joy and fulfilment. In a perfect world one’s art would be sustaining all by itself, but the truth is that particularly dreary day jobs are somewhat harder to bear before one’s had much success. I acquired an agent during my time in the office suite, but no publisher. Just about the only beauty to be found in and around my day job in those days was Maira Kalman’s regular New York Times feature, and down below the office tower when I passed twice daily through the echoing cathedral of Grand Central Station. I would steal glances at the starred ceiling of the Main Concourse on my way to work every morning. Look at this beautiful city I’ve landed in. Look at this cathedral for trains. 2. Two or three day jobs and several years later, in an entirely different version of my life (two published books; Brooklyn; two cats) I attended a Bat Mitzvah at the Jewish Museum. After the service we slipped out of the event room to take a look at the Museum, my husband and I. “There’s an artist exhibiting on this floor,” he said. I saw the exhibition title and my heart sped up a little. Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World.) The exhibition of her work, which runs through the end of July, has the feel of extreme curation. It occupies three rooms, but if they’d given her the run of the entire museum I suspect she could have filled it. She is a prolific artist and an avid collector. The New Yorker has a slideshow of Maira Kalman setting up her exhibit. She looks very focused. She wears an excellent hat. There are the paintings, of course, many of them originals of the images that appear in The Principles of Uncertainty and in her other books. Paintings of flowers, a Snickers bar, a pickle tag (3 UNITED PICKLE), sunny days in parks and gardens, a body in the snow. Emily Dickinson in a white dress with a black dog at her side, radiant against a background of deepest blue. A pale boy of about twelve, all in white, legs crossed, smiling and carefree on a curved red chair, Kalman’s gorgeously uneven handwriting on the wall above him: “Nabokov’s family fled Russia. How could the young Nabokov, sitting innocently and elegantly in a red chair, leafing through a Book on Butterflies imagine such displacement. Such loss.” It might be my favorite image of hers. In The Principles of Uncertainty the Nabokov piece is part of a larger musing on death and displacement that concludes with a map drawn by Kalman’s mother, a map of the world through her eyes: Canada is a grey mass along the top edge, a formless shadow that makes me think of Nabokov’s Zembla as described in the last four words of Pale Fire: A distant northern land. The states are jumbled chaotically together in the blue field of the United States, and down toward New York State the map slides into surrealism: Jerusalem abuts New York, with Tel Aviv and the name of the Russian town where Kalman’s mother grew up close on the other side. It’s a jumble, a map drawn by a woman who fled Russia for Palestine and then left Israel for the United States, a map of displacements and complicated flights. “She is no longer alive,” Kalman’s handwriting reads, “and it is impossible to bear. She loved Fred Astaire. And there you go. On you go. Hapless, heroic us.” Her affection for us shines through every painting, every word. She moves through life with a camera and a sketchbook, documenting our passions, our hairstyles, our hats. She has a fondness for beautiful objects. Her collected objects dominate the largest of her Jewish Museum exhibit’s three rooms. Because so many of them appear in her paintings, seeing them is a bit like coming across old friends. There are simple wooden ladders, an empty hat stand. A glass case whose contents I spent a long time studying: A miniature white chair, hard and severe-looking. A very small white funnel. A dried pomegranate. A selection of chaotic beautifully paint rags: "paint rags on linens taken quietly from hotels." Language self-instruction books, quite old: Colloquial Persian, Colloquial Bengali, Marathi Self-Taught, Telugu Without Tutor, Teach Yourself Gujarati. (Overheard by the glass case: "Gujarati! That would be good for you.") A brass whistle, a brass egg. A leather pouch. An enormous rusted skeleton key. Assorted varieties of string. Another case holds a shoebox labeled Mosses of Long Island. A teacup. A jar of buttons. A slinky. A hotel desk bell. Something like a giant rolodex. Pinking shears. Elsewhere, a list of colours found in Madame Bovary (green cloth / black buttons / red wrists...) And old suitcases, which is wonderful, because I love old suitcases: one of my prized possessions is the small monogrammed suitcase that my grandmother took with her when she left home in the 1930s. I’ve had it for as long as I can remember. I think sometimes about the way objects tie us to the past. My relationship with my grandmother was uneasy at best, but we had some initials and a love of books and travel in common, and there was an earlier version of her whom I wish I could have met: a stylish young woman with a fondness for smart hats who packed a suitcase stamped ESJ—Ella St. John—and set off for the capital of my distant northern land. 3. There are quotes written high up on the museum walls: “As if the fullness of the soul did not sometimes overflow in the emptiest metaphors, since no one can ever give the exact measure of his needs, nor of his conceptions, nor of his sorrows; and since human speech is like a cracked tin kettle, on which we hammer out tunes to make bears dance when we long to move the stars."
 -Gustave Flaubert (Mme Bovary) I feel like that every time I write a novel. Hung on the wall in another room, white fabric with embroidered text: My rigid heart is tenderly unmanned. 4. There are videos. Maira Kalman putting in an installation in the new library of PS 147: the theme was the alphabet, and she spent some months collecting objects to mount on the walls above the shelving. I just started looking for all these beautiful objects around us, that are not expensive, and that are part of the vernacular of what children would be looking at in their daily lives and I wanted them to see that in every mundane object there's incredible design and incredible ability to use your imagination and make it into something else, which is what everybody has to do in their life no matter what job they have. In my favorite clip, Maira Plays the Accordion As Pete Listens Patiently, the artist plays the accordion with some hesitation while the camera pans over her dog’s fur, his patient face. “I was going to say, she’s a little wacky,” an older woman said, putting down the headphones and moving away from the video with her friend. But aren't most of us? And don’t you have to be? It’s not an easy world to live in. The exhibition "Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World)" runs at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan (1109 5th Ave at 92nd St, New York NY) through July 31.
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Staff Pick: Blaise Cendrars’ Moravagine

“When I think all my senses burst into flame and I’d like to violate all beings, and when I give vein to my destructive instincts I find the triangle of a metaphysical solution.” --Blaise Cendrars, "Profound Today" Blaise Cendrars’ Moravagine assaults from the outset. Moravagine’s life begins with an assassination (his father’s), which hastens his mother’s miscarriage that ushers in both her death and Moravagine’s birth. Taken literally, his name means “death by vagina,” which refers not only to his mother’s death, but also the way that Moravagine relates to women, as he soon discovers his great pleasure in killing them. It’s rather easy to trace a history of emotional disconnect that could explain away some of Moravagine’s madness. He’s a child of technology gone wrong. He spent his first hundred days in an incubator--a prosthetic womb of sorts--and retains no memory of human affection from his early youth. In his solitude, he began to fetishize inanimate objects, and recalls, “an egg, a stovepipe could excite me sexually.” He later kills for pleasure, and it seems that he conquers his desire for intimacy with destruction. While part of Moravagine’s madness is the violence he inflicts upon women, his range of offenses is less discriminating, and includes children as well as his beloved pet dog, and planting bombs. Moravagine’s accomplice and acolyte, Dr. Raymond L. Science, was his psychiatrist first. Dr. Science’s obvious name befits a character in a B-movie, but suits his analytic impotence. He opposes the social control imposed by psychiatrists who “have put their science at the service of state police forces and organized the destruction of all that is most deeply idealistic (i.e. independent).” And yet, Dr. Science remains emasculated by his observational distance. For action, he’s dependent on Moravagine, his muse. In fact, his most inspired act is aiding Moravagine’s institutional escape. The novel unfurls with Moravagine and Dr. Science on the lam, often in disguise, igniting unrest in the various cities they hit, from Berlin to Moscow to Kiev and New Orleans. Moravagine leads the doctor on a trail of “life full of direct action that is worthless to an intellectual,” and yet the doctor enjoys the vicarious pleasure of observing Moravagine’s escapades, as he says, “the spectacle of [Moravagine] was sufficient for me.” The doctor’s passive adulation makes him the more subtly sinister of the two. He is sufficiently titillated by watching this large-scale lab experiment ignite, while Moravagine derives strength, and charisma, from his violence, impulse, and action. On the eve of the first world war, Moravagine is a man of the times. Cendrars himself was no stranger to the war, he lost his arm in battle. According to Henry Miller’s account, he would likely have lost his life if he hadn’t threatened the surgical team with a revolver to make sure he was attended to. Witnessing revolution, large-scale warfare, and mass casualties certainly colored Cendrars’ vision, and this novel is an obvious offspring of the war. There’s the requisite fetishization of mechanization, warfare, the airplane: “It’s the most beautiful possible projection of the human brain. And it’s not made to look at in a museum: you can climb in and fly!” and later, “The machines are here, with fine optimism.” Moravagine reads like a literary equivalent to George Grosz’s distorted depictions of war generals fitted with prosthetics and cavorting with prostitutes, and the general dissipation of a society still reeling in the aftermath of war. And yet, following in the wake of Moravagine’s violence and abandon is also a vicarious thrill for the reader; the book’s prose and pacing and bravado is fearsome, irresistibly so. Sven Birkets says, “Moravagine seeks damnation and extinction with a glee unequaled in literature.” It’s this combination of damnation and glee, abetted by intensity, which makes the book so beguiling. As a reader I turned pages in awe of the awful, captivated by gruesome scenes as Moravagine litters the land with lady’s corpses, incites revolution, becomes a pilot, a deity, and evades death repeatedly. Dr. Science’s distance makes him more palatable, if more tepid, too--but he’s rather heavy-handed in his misogyny.  You need not look further than the way the doctor characterizes women: “Woman is malignant. The history of all civilizations shows us the devices put to work by men to defend themselves against flabbiness and effeminacy.” Ironically, Dr. Science’s fear of passion makes women more contemptible than the nature of Moravagine's crimes. And even here he proves himself to be the intellectual counterpart to Moravagine’s violence. He asks, “which mother would not prefer to kill and devour her children if she could be sure in doing so of binding to her and keeping her male, of being permeated by him, absorbing him from below, digesting him, letting him be macerated within her in a state reduced to that of foetus, and carrying him thus her life long in womb?” The doctor’s ultimate fear is of being consumed. He too conquers passion, but by keeping his distance instead of killing, by maligning women, in order to remain in control and aloof. Which leads me to wonder, yet again, what is the vile pleasure in reading Moravagine? In Maggie Nelson’s Art of Cruelty, she reasons that violence and cruelty in art can be leveraged to break barriers, and push past preconceived notions: “Much more interesting, I think, are the capacities of particular works to expand, invent, explode, or adumbrate what we mean when we say ‘reality.’” This too is the way Moravagine afflicts the reader--words corrupt, ideas are assaulted, experimentation and observation in the name of progress is questioned. Moravagine's answer, and perhaps Cendrars’ too, lies in destroying conventions in order to liberate and recreate. As readers, though, we’re far more like Dr. Science in our detachment, our distance, our vicarious thrill from reading. Within this novel life is futile, existence is masochistic--it's all engines and machines, prosthetics and wings and exhilarating speed. As we hurtle into the future, sending messages around the world in an instant, Moravagine still unsettles.
Staff Picks

Staff Picks: Richard P. Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces

To cure a recent bout of cerebral malaise, I decided to learn about quantum physics, so I turned to Richard P. Feynman. Feynman was a legendary physics professor at the California Institute of Technology, won the Nobel Prize for his work on quantum field theory, and helped develop the atomic bomb. He is also well known for his books, mostly memoirs and collections of lectures, which have earned him a reputation I think is unique to him – an approachable physics genius. Six Easy Pieces is billed as “essential physics explained by its most brilliant teacher,” and is marketed as physics for beginners, a notion that Feynman contradicts in his preface to the book. As he tells it, he kept seeing students come to Caltech to study physics, and drop out of the program before they got to the interesting stuff.  So they reworked the curriculum. The special problem we tried to get at with these lectures was to maintain the interest of the very enthusiastic and rather smart students coming out of the high schools and into Caltech. By the end of two years of our previous course, many would be very discouraged because there were really very few grand, new, modern ideas presented to them. This is not really physics for beginners, then, but extremely advanced physics explained conversationally, so that students with a working knowledge of the sciences will be intrigued and inspired by the majestic complexity of the discipline, even if they can’t grasp it yet. For as Feynman also says, “even the most intelligent student was unable to completely encompass everything that was in the lectures.” Armed with this daunting knowledge, along with the knowledge that I was a Russian lit major and took a class in high school called “liberal arts chemistry,” I pressed on. If the eponymous six lectures are not exactly easy to comprehend, they are at least easy to digest, at about 20 pages each. More than once he lost me about two-thirds of the way through, but happily you do not have to master each lecture before moving on to the next. I did not finish the book with fluency in physics, although I did learn a lot of interesting things about tides, the temperature of gas, the hexagonal nature of ice crystals, and what quantum electrodynamics is. What I did gain was a picture of the journey physics has been on, from the days when it was called “natural philosophy” to the enormous strides of Newton and Einstein to the state of physics theory today, which Feynman calls  “an expanding frontier of ignorance.” He is always quick to note when he’s reached point where established physics ends and conjecture begins. At one point, he describes a theory involving the nucleus of an atom (its make-up is full of unknowns), but says it has yet to be proven. “It turns out that the calculations that are involved in this theory are so difficult that no one has ever been able to figure out what the consequences of the theory are, or to check it against experiment, and this has been going on now for almost twenty years!” The book is full of these unanswered questions, or unproven theories. Feynman compares physics to a game of chess. By watching the game long enough, you can catch on to what the basic rules are, and which pieces are allowed to move in which ways. “Even if we knew every rule, however, we might not be able to understand why a particular move is made in the game, merely because it is too complicated and our minds are limited. If you play chess you must know that it is easy to learn all the rules, and yet it is often very hard to select the best move or to understand why a player moves as he does.” It’s comforting to see physics portrayed in this way – as a set of theories under constant revision – rather than an intimidating discipline. Because Feynman is so candid about the limitations of physics, his book feels very welcoming and instructive at the same time. Like a really great teacher.
Staff Picks

Staff Pick: China Mieville’s Embassytown

Risk becomes a dirty word to many genre writers once they develop a rabid fan base.  As long as the cash registers keep ringing and the fans are happy, why take chances?  Indeed, the most rabid fans tend to insist that their favorite writers not only stick to their chosen genre but produce the same book over and over again.  That's why we keep getting robotic, risk-averse re-writers like the late Robert B. Parker. Given all that, China Mieville is to be loudly applauded for his new novel, Embassytown.  For starters, it's a work of pure science fiction, which is to say it's a departure from his seven previous fantasy novels, books of ravishing imagination that have won him a cult following and critical praise, including a career retrospective here last year.  Instead of doing the safe thing and revisiting his imaginary world of Bas-Lag or his reconfigured city of London, Mieville now takes us to his titular "city of contradictions on the outskirts of the universe." Embassytown's human inhabitants live under a breathable dome, surrounded by a city full of indigenous Hosts, or Ariekei, winged, chitinous creatures with antlers of eyes.  The Hosts speak Language.  The only humans capable of understanding and speaking Language are the Ambassadors, highly trained twins, or doppels, with linked minds who are capable of making paired sounds simultaneously.  The Hosts, who are incapable of lying, bridle against their innate literalness; that is, they yearn to be able to lie.  Their yearning is summed up in the novel's epigraph from Walter Benjamin: "The word must communicate something (other than itself)." A girl named Avice is recruited to become a simile.  She's taken to an abandoned restaurant, where a group of Hosts perform a mysterious ritual that enables them to call her a girl who ate what was given her. This gives Avice exalted status, and she grows up to become an immerser, a sort of intergalactic merchant marine who surfs the far reaches of space.  "The immer was and is full of renegades and refugees," she reports after returning to Embassytown.  "I had transported many things to most places; jewellery; immer-immersible livestock; payloads of organic garbage to a trash planet-state run by pirates." The Hosts and humans co-exist in an uneasy peace that is disrupted when a new Ambassador named EzRa arrives in Embassytown.  When EzRa speaks Language, the Hosts become addicted, which will lead to a siege of Embassytown, and eventually to total war between humans and Hosts. Mieville's phantasmagorical imagination is alive and well.  Architecture in the city is organic, changing shapes, producing antibodies; purses grow on bio-rigged trees; there are flying machines called "corvids," and computers in segmented bodies called "automs."  There are many verbal delights, sentences like this one after Avice meets her future husband: "We were in a bad hotel on the outskirts of Pellucias, a small city popular with tourists because of the gorgeous magmafalls it straddles." The novel, for all its inventiveness and linguistic verve, is not flawless.  In the early chapters we can see Mieville straining to lay the building blocks of Embassytown, the surrounding city and the farmland that brushes against a "gently toxic sea."  It's obvious he's feeling his way, sometimes groping.  The book is one-third gone before the gears of the story mesh.  The wait is too long, and nearly disastrous. But Mieville salvages the novel by giving us a rich story that is, first and last, about language – its power to bring humans and aliens together, and its power, when misused, to turn them into mortal enemies.  Once EzRa begins to work his dark magic with Language, the novel takes off, moving smartly to a climax that is built not around a rote battle scene, but on the healing power of a new language.  It's a bewitching performance by a writer who deserves praise for daring to do something rare among writers of his stature: He's willing to walk the high wire without a net.
Staff Picks

Staff Pick: Two Crime Novels

I’ve been thinking lately that I should be reading more crime fiction. I’ve never been against it—in theory I’m in favor of anything good, regardless of genre, although I’ve never taken to werewolves—but I haven’t actively sought it out. But since my second novel keeps getting categorized as crime fiction, my illiteracy in the genre that I’ve apparently been shoehorned into has become slightly uncomfortable. “What kind of a book have you written?” people ask. “Um,” I say, “I guess it’s a sort of literary crime novel?” (I know. Awkward. But if you set out to write literary fiction and end up getting reviewed in Spinetingler Magazine, what are you supposed to call it?) “Oh!” they say. “Have you read [insert name of high-profile crime writer whom I haven’t read but obviously should have if I’m claiming any sort of association with the genre]?” The most recent books I’ve read in the genre confirm my long-held suspicion that attempting to categorize books by genre does readers a disservice; these books are no less literary than any of the other great books I’ve read this year, they just have crimes and/or guns in them. For your reading pleasure, two books you might consider reading even if you don’t think you like crime fiction very much: 1. Savages by Don Winslow: I think this book is perhaps best described as a Tarantino film crossed with a prose poem. It’s violent, beautifully written, and experimental, and I’ve never read anything like it. Structurally, it’s a dizzyingly intricate 290 chapters, the first one only two words long (1. “Fuck you.”) Ben is a brilliant botanist who’s partnered up with his best friend, Chon, to produce and distribute the best pot on the West Coast. Chon, a former Navy SEAL who brought unspeakably high-quality marijuana seeds back from Afghanistan, has a girlfriend named O, but she sleeps with Ben too. Everyone’s in their twenties. The trio lead lives of hedonistic ease in Laguna Beach, until a vicious Mexican cartel arrives on the scene to stage a hostile takeover of the business. The shifts in perspective are interesting; Winslow shifts back and forth within his central trio and then moves outward, until we're reading short chapters from the viewpoint of practically every thug who populates the pages. The effect is fragmented, but effective. What I found most startling about this book was Winslow’s willingness to abandon conventional form and slip without warning in and out of a sort of loose poetry— Slicing through SoCal Cutting through a California night The freeway (5) is soft and warm and Welcoming But for Ben The green exit signs are like steps climbing up a scaffold Toward O. The cartel kidnaps O to speed up the takeover negotiations. The body count is considerable. The book’s practically impossible to put down. 2. Snowdrops by A.D. Miller: Snowdrops is as quiet as Savages is loud. The book opens with the early-spring discovery of a body; a snowdrop, in Moscow slang, a corpse hidden all winter under heavy snows. It appears with the first thaw in front of Nick Platt’s apartment building. It’s apparent from the first pages that a complicated crime is being played out, something slow and deadly unfolding over weeks and months; evidence of it is all around us even as we can’t see how the pieces fit together—until, of course, the trap snaps shut in the final chapters and the significance of the body in the first chapter falls devastatingly into place. Nick Platt is a British lawyer who lives and works in Moscow in the early 2000s. One day in the Metro he meets a young woman, Masha, and quickly falls in love. His narration takes the loose form of a confession to his soon-to-be-bride, years later—“You’ve wanted to know why I haven’t talked to you about Russia”—although the deeper he goes into the story, the less certain the wedding seems. Masha asks for his assistance in helping her aunt, Tatiana, move to a new apartment. The real story here isn’t the crime; it’s the extent to which we’re willing to lie to ourselves, to ignore the obvious, in pursuit of happiness or companionship or love. A lonely man in a foreign city, courted suddenly by a beautiful young girl, is willing to suspend disbelief even when her story begins to crumble and lies start showing through, even when he’s half-aware at every turn that he’s complicit in something dreadful and that everything is wrong. An intriguing debut, suffused with an atmosphere of dread.
Staff Picks

Staff Pick: The Patterns of Paper Monsters by Emma Rathbone

I've been a slow reader this month.  First, I slogged through The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles; the contemporary, omniscient narrator of this Victorian-age narrative fascinated my nerd-brain, but failed to truly interest my reader-brain.   Then I took my sweet, sweet time gliding through Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, as translated by Lydia Davis.  I hadn't read the novel since high school, and this time around I found myself reading aloud passages that were truly a feat of magic, summarizing with rigorous and well-chosen details whole weeks or months or years at a time.  I loved the way, too, that Flaubert distilled character into a single paragraph, stringing together a distinct list of experiences, memories, habits, and desires in a such a way that I knew that person.  One sentence near the end of the book made me especially happy: "His gaze, keener than his lancet, would descend straight through your soul, past your excuses and your reticence, and disarticulate your every lie."  That word--disarticulate; I savored it for days. But after these two books, I longed for a contemporary novel about contemporary life.  I longed for references to malls, and to boners, and to "intense cell phones" and to a pillow made of denim with an actual jeans pocket on the front, "like it thinks it's Bruce Springsteen."  Enter:  The Patterns of Paper Monsters by Emma Rathbone.  This funny, sad and engaging novel scratched this particular reading itch. I first discussed wanting to read Rathbone's debut novel in my essay about teenage protagonists.   As I wrote in that piece, the novel is narrated by 17-year-old Jake Higgins, who has been sent to a juvenile detention center in Northern Virginia for armed robbery.   The book is composed of Jake's diary entries about his time at the JDC.  With a lesser writer, this conceit might have exhausted me after 50 or so pages in, or at least shown its marionette's strings, but Rathbone is skilled enough to maintain the veracity of her character's  teenage-consciousness while still including electric and surprising descriptions that further my understanding of him.  Jake's a smart kid, but (thankfully) not overly precocious, and Rathbone's talents as a wordsmith easily become Jake's.  The woman who runs the computer room, Mrs. Dandridge, "is a pile of a person who smells like someone's weird house," and David, Jake's partner in a class project, "had this like, air-conditioned aggression that's more state-of-the-art than anyone else's."  On every page there was a line like these two to delight in. I loved the way this book was structured, as each notebook entry led me further into Jake's soul-deadening, suffocating world, with its lack of nutritious food, its too-cold rooms, and its awful inspirational posters.  They also led me further into Jake: his feelings for fellow inmate Andrea, who's been sent to the JDC for selling pot to elementary school kids; his hatred for his abusive, alcoholic stepfather, whom he calls Refrigerator Man; and his conflicted feelings about adults beyond the facility who lead "normal" and "productive" lives. I also loved this structure for how quickly and easily it led me through the story.  These were bite-sized chapters, each one an amuse bouche of clever and/or heartbreaking information.  I read Rathbone's debut in less than 24 hours, and, holy frijoles, was it fun.  The ending felt a touch rushed after such a wonderful build-up, but I didn't mind: I was too pleased to be reading a page-turner, and to be laughing aloud, to be reveling in so many sparkling turns of phrase.  Jake seems like a person who would appreciate the word disarticulate, as does Ms. Rathbone. I look forward to devouring her next book.